Building Human-Centered Design into ICT4D Projects: An Interview with Danny Alexander and Sean Hewens of

seanhewensSean Hewens is knowledge manager and in-house counsel at He oversees’s mission to spread human-centered design throughout the social sector. In his role as Knowledge Manager, Sean has helped document and tell stories about every aspect of the design process. Previously, Sean worked at a law firm and then ran a non-profit building computer labs in Kenya and Tanzania.

dannyDanny Alexander is a Senior Designer at Prior to he worked in industrial and product design, and  has been a partner in several start-ups. He works with’s clients and partners to explore new frontiers in design, with a focus on the intersection of design and social good.

Q: What is human-centered design?

A: [Sean]: Human-­‐centered design is a problem-solving process that puts humans at the very center. There are three key tenets.

First, immerse yourself within the community as much as possible [to understand the problem]. You can start very specific with folks in the community. Learn from them as much as possible.

Second, you focus on brainstorming and prototyping rapidly. The idea with brainstorming is to go as broad as you can with ideas. Use what you learned from the community and ideate.

Third, you get those ideas back out to the community to get feedback from real users as quickly as possible in the form of prototypes. Our early prototypes often fail, but in a way that allows us to iterate and refine our ideas based upon feedback from real users.

Q: Why is human-centered design important in the social sector, and is the social sector lagging behind the private sector in this regard?

A: [Sean]: Human-centered design started with IDEO in the 1980s designing the computer mouse and the folding design for the laptop computer. As IDEO expanded its process, it began working with the social sector and found human-centered design to be very effective.

There are a couple of reasons for this. In the social sector you have funders and beneficiaries. Frequently you find donor-driven programs and solutions that aren’t based on the real world needs of actual users, or the communities that are supposed to be benefitted. Human-centered design is an effective tool that designs programs and solutions based on real user needs.

[Danny]: There are a lot of missing feedback loops in social sector implementations. The private sector has a feedback loop, although it may be one-dimensional: do people buy a product, yes or no? But in international development you have projects being implemented thousands of miles away from where decisions are made. Frequently, there’s no feedback loop so it’s hard to say: Is it working, and are people choosing to use this? In these instances you have programs that are not at all sustainable and not having real impact, and yet donors continue to think they’re successful and promote them just because they have been implemented. Human-centered design helps give voice to the community, and ensures design is built around user needs and is sustainable.

[Sean]: Before I joined, when I was building a computer lab in Tanzania for my non-profit, from a tech perspective we nailed it. But we didn’t consider the actual needs of the community until we arrived there to build the computer lab. We didn’t ask: what about the parents of the kids who will use the computer lab? What about teachers or community members who won’t have access to the lab? All of these reasons that our project was most likely to fail were rooted around people and the community. Unfortunately, most of what we actually considered before we went was the technology of the computer lab that our donors had paid for us to build. This was my first glimpse into the idea that starting with the users in the community is the much more sustainable approach.

Q: Why is human-centered design important to the field of ICT4D?

A: [Sean]: In general the development community is very risk averse. If things go badly, you’re not talking about losing quarterly profits but losing lives. One of the benefits of human-centered design is to mitigate risk by testing early and failing fast.

In the developing world so often where projects fail is the not around the actual technology or solution, but about how it is implemented in the context of the community. You need to ask yourself: Even if it the technology is good, how it might fail anyway? For example, is microcredit needed to enable the community to make necessary purchase? Is training needed to ensure that the technology will be used? You need to figure out all the conditions necessary to the technology being implemented and sustainable.

[Danny]: In our work, we encourage testing ideas in a rough, unfinished form, often before the technology is even developed.

One example is a recent project called Pump Away, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as part of their Reinvent the Toilet initiative, which is investing in technologies to address sanitation challenges around the world. Our work on Pump Away was to take one of the technologies they’ve developed—an Omni‐Ingestor—and develop the business, service and brand for a sustainable pit latrine emptying service in Zambia. The team spent a few weeks on the ground in Zambia, interviewing community members about what the sanitation challenges were. This made things really tangible and enabled the team to prototype quickly, even though the technology is still months, or years, from being finished.

One of the key criteria for the project was to design a service that would be financially sustainable, and that investors would invest in. So we asked ourselves: What kind of a business model will make people pay to use this, and what makes it better than the competition? Could we get a bunch of people to sign up to empty latrines at the same time in the same place for greater efficiency?

PumpAwayTo test this idea, we dressed our local translator up as a salesman and gave him an artificial price for this service and then let him loose in the community to see if people would sign up. Within two hours, we had more demand than the technology could even fulfill. Rapid prototyping enabled us to do all of this before anything was built. Testing in this fast, rough way enabled us to prove the concept and understand local demand. We also learned that people were interested in emptying part of their latrine if they couldn’t afford to empty the full latrine each time.

In the context of ICT4D, human-centered design can help with the design of a technology, and the context around it, long before the technology is ready for launch.

Q: Is failure at certain times not only acceptable but important?

A: [Sean]: Our ethos is not that failure is good or bad, but that when you learn from it, failure can be a very positive part of the process. You want to try to get some of the failing out early so that you can learn from it and let it influence the design of a better more successful project.

[Danny]: One example of failure with a small “f” is the Clean Team project in Ghana. In early field research, the team showed community members different kinds of toilets that they might get through the program to learn what their aspirational ideal was from a theoretical perspective. Most people said the standard western flush toilet was the ideal.

So a few weeks later the team went back to Ghana with 5 or 6 full-scale prototypes, some of which were water flush toilets that would work without connection to a water system or to a sewage grid. Despite having designed the toilets based on the community’s aspirational ideal, the water flush toilet was an abject failure. Two days later every single one had overflowed.

Why? In this particular community people used water to cleanse instead of paper. Older people couldn’t figure out how to use it. And then people realized they had to pay for the water. Across the board, the feedback was negative.

So what did we learn? When we interviewed the community, that’s what they said they wanted, but just asking wasn’t good enough. We needed to build, test, and fail. Trust me, you learn more from cleaning up a dirty toilet than you ever will from qualitative work or a survey. Prototyping and testing enabled us to fail on the scale of just a few households, whereas if we had invested in a major program around this aspirational toilet there would have been thousands of homes with overflowing toilets.

[Sean]: Here’s an opposite example of Failure with a big “F”, where folks didn’t fail early. In this example, an organization spent a lot of time investing in a large program that was rolled out without ever testing with the community. The program, which was implemented in a refugee camp in northern Kenya [near the border with Somalia], provided a nutritional pack called Sprinkles. The idea was that users would open the vitamin packet and sprinkle it on food or in water to provide basic vitamins for kids. But when the program was implemented, none of the parents would give it to their kids. Why? The foil wrappers that contained the vitamins looked just like condom wrappers. So this program had spent all this money designing and distributing the packets, and then failed. If they had run a small pilot initially, or even prototyped the packaging, they would have failed in a small way earlier in the process, and been able to change the packaging at a much smaller cost.

You want to start small, pilot early on and then scale up. This is the value of human- centered design.


For more information on applying human-centered design to the work of social enterprises and NGOs, download the free toolkit available here.


6 thoughts on “Building Human-Centered Design into ICT4D Projects: An Interview with Danny Alexander and Sean Hewens of

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